Beneath the Rhododendrons

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The great rhododendrons (Rhododendron Maximum) are thick throughout western North Carolina, no less so in Panthertown Valley.  We hiked through the valley, and though the leaves had fallen from all but the paper birches, even the huge snowstorm the weeks before had not tempered the deep, rich green of the underbrush.

I don’t particularly care for the bare bushes, though in the summer when they are flowering, they can be quite lovely.  To me, they are glorified giant azaleas, which again, are beautiful only when they are in bloom.  Nevertheless, I respect them.  They are a native species, and they have retained their ground (with great aplomb) even where invasive species would have otherwise taken over.  Even the leaves of the rhododendron are persistent, lasting up to eight years on the plant itself, and then they are incredibly slow to decompose.  There is even some believe that the rhododendron is allelopathic (a biological phenomenon by which an organism produces chemicals that inhibit the growth or germination of other plants), which means it quite literally fights for its place in the forests through biochemical warfare.

There is, I admit, something to be admired about the lowly “great rhododendron” and the wide swath it has cut through Appalachia.  I count myself among a group of survivors, whose roots were set down deep by my parents, else I would have washed away long ago.  I feel a sort of kindred with them, and perhaps I did not care for them in the past because I saw a bit too much of myself in them.

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No Handbills

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The floods from the melting snow unearthed two old metal signs on the property in Brevard, North Carolina, which we found on a morning walk.  They fallowed under cover of sweetgum leaves and time.  The signs, rusted and riddled with bullet holes, were still legible, and demonstrated the disdain for the hippies that once made the property their home, before they were forced out by a more puritanical wave of valley residents.

The property sits on a geologic fault line, and the streams on the property are headwaters for the French Broad River, one of the oldest rivers in the world.  The property was a summer camp in a former age, and the ruins of the old stone buildings are still visible.  As I mentioned in a previous post, the property was once a common stopping ground of a folk-singing, free-loving, cache of hippies and musicians, including Pete Seeger and Woodie Guthrie.

These signs are further reminders that we were not the first to enjoy the hills and fields where generations of boys spent their summers away from home and hippies did – well, what hippies do…

In the seven years my family has been coming here, the land has become a part of us, a memory we carry with us in our day to day lives in Florida.  I will never know who put the bullet holes in the signs, but they will remain nevertheless.  We have left our own marks on the property, no less visible or timeless.  Generations from now, the cabins may fall and the sapling white pines may overtake them, but our time on the property will still be felt.

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Steve at the Falls

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My family became the subject of a number of portraits during our post-Christmas vacation in Brevard, North Carolina.  On the whole, the portraiture was done mostly willingly (except my mother, who loathes having her picture taken – much like me).  I did not push her, except for one photograph with the grand-kids and one family portrait, which even I deigned to sit for.  This photograph was a candid of my father admiring Schoolhouse Falls in Panthertown Valley.

Although the falls were admittedly beautiful from the front, the view from behind the falls was something else entirely.  We had met a sweet older lady on the hike, just as we were about to turn around, who advised us to take ten minutes and hike to the falls that were running more strongly than she had ever seen due to the rain and snow melt.  She said that if we were careful, we could even hike behind the falls, which piqued my curiosity.  As soon as we turned the corner onto the side path, we heard the crashing of the falls.  The hike was easy to the falls itself, and I took a number of photographs of the falls that I have added to my portfolio “Falls.”

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Emma

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My parent’s black lab, Emma, was our constant companion on our hikes in North Carolina.  We hiked five miles in Panthertown Valley, and she must have covered at least twice that.  She would run ahead, just far enough that my mother was still in her line of sight, and then run back, as if to report that there were no obstacles in our path to come.  I took many photographs of her along the way, but this one best captured her reconnaissance endeavors.

We have had a number of dogs growing up, and they would all have been faithful companions on the walk.  My parents’ dog, Tam, whom I remember as a kind old yellow rug, came first, and then we rescued Sadie, a bright red golden retriever, who I grew up with as a child.  Dylan, Emma’s great-uncle, came when Sadie was getting along in her years, and brought out the youth in her once more.  Hannah, who was the mother of my sister’s lab Zinger, was my girl all the way through college and law school.

Anna and I now have Zoe, whom we rescued ten years ago.   She is completely deaf now, and Anna claims her sight is going, too.  She has been there through the ups and downs in our marriage, at our kids’ births, and through it all with us.  I know that we will have to say goodbye, sooner rather than later, and it breaks my heart to think that one day, she will not be the first to greet me when I come home from work.  That will be a devastating day.

For now, I am patient with her as she lolls through the backyard when I let her out, stopping and sniffing at the wind, using the one sense that has not yet failed her.  She moves more slowly, and she will not get up from her bed in the morning until she is ready to take on the new day.  I admire this about her.  I took many photographs of her on this trip to North Carolina, because she was in her element in the cool mountain air with new smells to pursue laconically as she ambled ten steps in front of me at all times.  She is more wary of leaving me behind than Emma ever will be, and I am wary of ever leaving her behind either.

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Paper Birch

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The winter leaves had fallen on all of the trees on the property in Brevard, North Carolina, when we visited at the end of December.  The lone holdouts were the thin, wispy leaves of the white birch trees (Betula Papyrifera), which clung on despite the snowstorm that had toppled many larger trees.  The scientific name, Betula Papyrifera, literally means paper-bearer, and indeed the leaves were paper-thin and fluttered at even the slightest hint of wind.  (In truth, however, the “paper birch” is named due to the thin white bark which often peels in paper-like layers from the trunk.)

The paper-birch is a short lived species of the birch family, and in the climate of North Carolina will likely only live thirty to fifty years (though in colder, less humid climates it may live for a hundred years or more).  Despite the relatively short life of the tree, it is a survivor, as the leaves attest.  The paper birch is a “pioneer species,” meaning it is often one of the first trees to grow in an area after other trees are removed by some sort of disturbance. When it grows in these pioneer, or early successional woodlands, it often forms stands of trees where it is the only species.

What struck me the most, however, was that despite the relatively small stature of the trees (there were a number on the property easily recognizable due to its leaves), they were the only ones that held fast to their leaves, almost refusing to let them fall.  I admire this stubbornness, even in a tree.  What’s more, the leaves, though faded and whitened by the fall, were still beautiful, and decorated the tree admirably.  We can, perhaps, learn something from the paper birch about retaining beauty in the winters of our lives.

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Posted

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The provenance of this post is unknown.  I took the photograph right as I began to become serious about my photography.  The post is within the ruins of what used to be a gym for a boys camp in North Carolina, but the property was also a hippie commune, which the likes of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie graced with their presence.   The photograph is a simple composition, and if I would have taken it now, this one would likely have found itself on the cutting room floor.  Nevertheless, the photograph is nostalgic, and as my posts have shown, this is a flaw of mine.

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Behind the Falls

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This photograph of my dad standing behind a waterfall was taken in Panthertown Creek near Brevard, North Carolina.  We hiked about three miles and were prepared to turn around, when we ran into a sweet older lady who said, “The falls are really running today.”  We asked for directions, and she pointed us down a side path, which we traversed for about ten minutes until we heard the roaring of the waterfall.  I took many photographs and wanted to get closer.  I found a not so well-worn path, and my dad and I followed it until we found ourselves behind the waterfall.  He remarked that although walking behind a waterfall had not been on his bucket list, it should have been.  It was truly remarkable.  The hike behind the falls had been tough, but it was so very worth it.

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Morning through the Maples

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Dawn is often a foggy affair in the mountains.  This photograph was taken off of the front porch of our cabin in Brevard, North Carolina.  We have come up for a week, and though we have been up for only two days, I am reinvigorated after a long year at work.  Foggy beginnings seem familiar and yet foreign.  Though I am nostalgic for many things, living in a metaphorical fog is not amongst them.  Waking up, walking outside with a hot cup of tea, and watching as the low clouds creep through the maples is something different entirely.  Being here with my family, who walked through the fog with me, and seeing my son slushing through the creeks on the property like I did when I was his age is inspiring.  Even though the dawn is foggy, the sunlight burns through in the end.

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Symptoms

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These desiccated little smoky polypore mushrooms (Polyporus Adustus), like a resurrection fern, will spring back to life after a brief winter rain.  Unfortunately, for the hardwood trees that they are found on, the time for resurrection has long past.  The enzymes in the mushrooms help to speed the decay of dead and dying trees in forests all over the world, including this one in North Carolina, west of Asheville.  Interestingly, they also can eat away synthetic materials, such as synthetic dies in plastics, and research is being done to see what role these common little mushrooms can play in bioremediation.  This dwarf American Chestnut (Castanea Pumila) still bore leaves, and but for the polypores on its bark, the tree would have otherwise appeared healthy.  But alas, it is the beginning of the end for the august old tree.  The mushrooms are a symptom of death and disease, otherwise invisible until the tree succumbs.

I think of my favorite aunt on my dad’s side, Irene, who died of cancer when I was younger.  I had seen her soon before the cancer took over, and she appeared healthy on the outside — albeit crusty and sarcastic to the end.  I regret not knowing her better, as she was a huge influence on my dad’s life.  My dad and I went to Maine to visit her and my memere, who was in the throes of dementia, and I spent most of the time in the back of Irene’s house on the rocky outcroppings looking for moose and wild blueberries.  I told her that I would bring her a harvest of the blueberries, which grew low to the ground, rooted in the interstices of the rocks.  I failed in my mission, eating at least two-thirds of what would eventually make it into my small bucket.  I told her that I had not found as many as I had wanted (which, I suppose, was true), but my lips, stained a dark shade of purple, belied my foraging skills.  She laughed and smiled her ever present wry smile, and we had an understanding.  I was the chubby kid who was not to be trusted gathering fruit, and she was the understanding aunt, too kind to say anything cross.  Perhaps if there were outward signs, I would have stayed inside longer to hear her stories of my dad and uncle, Harvey, and perhaps I would have been more judicious with the blueberries I promised her.

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Hollow

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I have long since wondered what befell this little pignut hickory tree (Carya Glabra) that I found on a walk in the Pisgah National Forest, just outside Asheville, North Carolina.  Its brothers and sisters in the grove around it were healthy, but perhaps this one was hollow from an early age.  In my journey through the morass of my own personal demons, I met many individuals who were all but hollowed-out inside.  For some, their facade mirrored their inner emptiness, like this little hickory stump.  For many, however, they looked strong and confident and healthy on the surface, all the while roiling with anguish inside.  Even those of us who manage to come out the other side still have hollow pockets, places where the memories of the shadows still live, which catch us by surprise every so often.  Eventually, for the fortunate few, these shadows subside, but they remain–never to fade completely into the light, like scars that sometimes catch the sunlight at just the right angle to remind you that you were once injured, too.  And every once in a while, you may come upon a hollow stump, a not so subtle memento of the emptier days.  Maybe you walk by it, trying not to remember those times, but maybe, just maybe, you snap a photograph, a token to hold close to you, reminding you how insidious the hollowness can be.

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